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Using NetFlix in the Nineties
In 1997/1998, consumers wanted to try out the new DVD format, and while it was relatively easy to find DVDs to buy, rental options were severely limited. Video stores were hesitant to put DVD movies on their shelves, perhaps not sure if the new format would stick around; they typically only stocked the top 100 titles, mainly new releases. Viewers craved more, and Marc Randolph and Reed Hasting obliged. Enter, Netflix.
Available widely to consumers in April 1998, Netflix — then represented in the very ‘90s CamelCase form: NetFlix — opened its store on the capital-I-Internet, carrying almost every DVD in existence at the time, more than 900 movies!
Netflix was called the perfect “Web site” for consummate couch potatoes, a video store you could use without leaving the house. No driving-to-the-store hassles or video-store “Sorry, that film is checked out” excuses. By July 1998, Netflix had more than 10,000 customers…they have about 220 million global paid subscribers today.
Need help making a movie selection? Just use the “NetFlix FlixFinder” function on any page (in 1998) to search an encyclopedia of titles cross-referenced by genre, director, actor, and more.
Discs would be delivered to your door within 3 business days. The first two movies could be rented for seven days for $4 each, with each additional movie $3. Shipping was $2 for the first DVD, $1 for the rest. The discs were returned in the iconic prepaid mailer.
“The Like It? Keep It!” program helped buyers avoid expensive mistakes. Not only were DVDs-for-purchase offered at up to 30% below retail price, Netflix would deduct the rental fee on any title you decided to buy, so the preview was free. If buyers wanted the original DVD case, they could request it via electronic mail for just the cost of shipping.
Reviewing the history of Netflix makes me nostalgic for SimplerTimes.
My Early Experience with NetFlix
I spent a lot of my early years around movies. Not only did I watch a lot of them, but I also worked at multiple video stores: two independent stores and one mall store that only sold movies. So I was very well-versed with the rental and movie sales ecosystem, and very rarely did I not have a new or rented film sitting next to my TV ready for watching.
Unfortunately, as the Nineties drew to a close, I started to get busy. It was around this time that I left my mall job and got a new full-time job. My time was no longer focused on movies the way it had been, and I found after work that I didn’t have the energy to head to the video store like I did in the past.
Then a friend of mine at work, who knew of my love of film, told me about a service he was trying out where you could rent DVDs through the internet, it was call NetFlix.
At the time, I didn’t own a DVD player, but I was interested. From the reviews and word-of-mouth, I had heard they improved both picture and sound quality, had a lot more widescreen offerings, and could include special features.
I was VERY interested. The problem was, I didn’t have much interest in re-buying all the films I already owned, and my local rental store had a limited selection.
NetFlix seemed like a perfect solution. They had a fantastic selection, I wouldn’t need to worry about finding time to go to the store, and it would allow me to experiment with a new tech service. So I signed up that night and went to Nobody Beats the Wiz to buy a DVD player. The next week I got my first discs.
My plan was to do one classic film and one newer film at a time. So I picked Casablanca and The Big Lebowski. The DVD player was so novel that I watched both of them multiple times, pausing, fast-forwarding, and rewinding my newest toy frequently.
Having such ease of access reignited my then smoldering interest in film, and I was hooked. I would spend my lunch breaks curating my DVD queue and was almost giddy when I went to the mailbox and would see that red envelope.
As an early-adopter, I was a tireless and, I imagine, annoying cheerleader for the service. Engaging in conversation with anyone who would listen on how they should sign up for this service before it goes away.
And that was important. This was the late-nineties, and tech services would come and go quickly. Often only lasting months, even if they seemed like a good idea.
NetFlix, seemed like a GREAT idea, but I kept thinking, no way something this useful would last.
Yet, they did.
They outlived all the video stores. They fought off all their competitors. They pioneered the streaming service world.
They are hitting up against some pretty stiff competition right now, and I am not sure what the future holds for them. No matter what happens, though, the company that started with the little red envelopes will hold a special place in my heart. With a website and a limited selection of good films, they were able to help me conveniently enjoy watching movies, and change the entertainment landscape forever.